To adequately evaluate Lars von Trier’s latest and most controversial work, we need to saddle any review with the same baggage of expectations that its viewers will be bringing into the theater. The controversy surrounding Lars von Trier’s Antichrist has been well documented. First were the director’s much-publicized bouts of depression, which both inspired its concept and threatened its completion. Then came reports of the film’s graphic sexual violence. Antichrist’s debut at Cannes was overshadowed by the special “anti-award” created by that festival’s ecumenical jury for the specific purpose of condemning the film. And we can’t help but see all of this in light of von Trier’s history of combining striking visual and conceptual artistry with virulent misanthropy (and misogyny, but more on that later).
Without question, Antichrist lives up to every aspect of this hype, for better or for worse. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as its unnamed protagonists (credited as "He" and "She"), the film follows the effort of a psychotherapist to rehabilitate his traumatized wife after their child falls to his death through their bedroom window -- as they have sex. They retreat to a cabin in the woods (heavy-handedly named "Eden," for reasons that become apparent in the film’s second half), where She had been working on a dissertation the previous summer, in hopes of forcing Gainsbourg’s character to confront whatever fears may be keeping her in a hysterical state. As She bristles at the paternalistic authority He exercises over her in his therapist role, their relationship becomes increasingly confrontational, both verbally and physically.
As one would expect from a team as accomplished as von Trier and superstar cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the film is aesthetically impeccable. The opening and closing sequences are shot in slow-motion, high-contrast black and white, surely a visual nod to Tarkovsky, to whom the film is dedicated in the closing credits. The exteriors at Eden are rendered vibrant yet threatening, a product of a color palette that is just slightly washed out and sound design that menacingly foregrounds sounds as seemingly banal as leaves rustling or acorns falling.
These aesthetic elements are part of a larger project in which von Trier repeatedly problematizes sex and regeneration, through both the shifting power dynamics and eventual collapse of the relationship between the two leads and symbolic gestures, like the falling of acorns. (A particularly grizzly scene involving insect eggs also comes to mind.) Much has been made of the shocking images of genital mutilation in the film’s final third, but they are the logical culmination of the psycho-sexual implosion von Trier engineers throughout the film, as his characters struggle and fail to dissociate sexuality from their personal trauma. Antichrist is most definitely psychologically taxing, but, as usual, von Trier is notable for bravely pushing his concept over a line that few other directors would be willing to cross. And, of course, Dafoe and Gainsbourg deserve all the credit in the world for their performances here. They fully embrace the challenges of their deeply troubled characters and carry them off with almost uncomfortable believability.
Perhaps the greatest shock about the film is that von Trier actually manages to one-up the “heroic rape victim” thematic with which he made his name in Breaking the Waves. (I should caution here that the next two paragraphs are basically spoilers of the film’s major turning point.) It turns out that Her dissertation was on gynocide, the systematic persecution and killing of women. Throughout the summer in which she worked at Eden, alone with her son, her historical texts gradually led her to believe in the natural evil in women that medieval societies used as the basis for their persecution. From there, any notion that von Trier meant to interrogate the gendered power dynamics of the therapist/patient relationship evaporates quickly; She really is out of her mind, and the filmmaker portrays her from then on as the monster she thinks she is. The film thus implicitly justifies His psychological dominance over Her, rapidly erasing any progressive gender discourse that might have colored the film’s first half.
Perhaps weary of a career’s worth of misogyny accusations, von Trier actually references his critics in a telling scene. As She describes to Him the effect that her work on gynecide had on her, He counters “But you’re supposed to be critical of those texts!” Well, I’m calling his bluff. I do find the film’s gender politics to be abhorrent. And beyond that, his self-reflexive call for criticism seems to me an insulating mechanism. Von Trier has carved out a space for himself in contemporary cinema in which it’s almost expected that he will visit some new degradation on women in each film he creates. Yet by referencing that space, he dares the audience to call him out on his offenses, fully aware that criticism of his misogyny will be bracketed off from serious discourse as standing in the way of art’s ability to provoke.
Indeed, when the Cannes jury called out the film’s misogyny, they were met with cries of censorship. I will say this much: I do not think their actions were justified. By condemning the entirety of the film, one essentially throws the aesthetic and artistic merit baby out the window with the atrocious gender politics bath water (how's that for an apt metaphor?) A distinction must be made, and certainly the film deserves praise for both its frighteningly beautiful formal construction and its metaphorical complexity. Yet there's just no escaping the facts that Antichrist's ideology is pretty horrid and that the director’s smug security in it is almost more offensive.